I disliked the head coach so I quit the football team my senior year in high school. The following fall (1965) I registered at the local junior college in my home town of Burlington, IA primarily to avoid the draft and the inevitable trip to Viet Nam had I been drafted. Back then students attending college were exempt from the draft.
In the fall of 1965, while attending Burlington Junior College I happened to meet the head basketball coach, Ed Sparling, a very colorful gent in his own right, and I became one of his student managers. We had some incredible athletic talent and a very successful basketball season. In the process Coach Sparling and I became friends.
In the spring (1966), sometime after the basketball season was over, one of the players (Rick Lowery) happened to mention to the coach that I had been a place-kicker on the local high school football team. Now Coach Sparling took great pride in making sure all of his players received scholarship offers after their playing days in Burlington. And fortunately for me he included one of his student managers in his scholarship producing efforts.
Coach Sparling Writes a Letter
Despite the fact that he’d never seen me kick anything, Coach Sparling wrote a letter praising my place-kicking prowess and sent it to a dozen head football coaches across the Midwest. I never saw the actual letter, but whatever he said, it was good enough to get the attention of Howard Fletcher, the head football coach at Northern Illinois University in the spring of 1966.
Coach Fletcher Offers Me a Football Scholarship
Coach Fletcher responded by inviting me to visit campus. My father and I drove to NIU. We spent an hour or so touring campus with Coach Fletcher. Then, without ever asking me to kick a single football, he offered me a scholarship covering tuition and books in order to play football at NIU. To say I was thrilled beyond belief is an understatement. I’d quit my high school football team and suddenly I’m offered a college football scholarship? But this is only the beginning!
The Square Toed Shoe
In the wake of our visit, my dad, a bit of an innovator himself, took a pair of my old football shoes down to the local shoe repair shop in downtown Burlington and asked the owner to concoct a square toe on the front of the right shoe. Yes, back in 1966 footballs were still being kicked with the toe of the foot instead of with the instep like soccer style kickers do today. This increased the surface area and improved the odds of kicking the ball through the goal posts.
The First Play From Scrimmage Touchdown
I practiced regularly all summer with my new square toed shoe, and in the fall I headed to NIU. After a couple weeks of early practice, we had our first game. And I’m here to tell you that on the VERY FIRST PLAY FROM SCRIMMAGE, quarterback Mike Greisman dropped back and threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to a little speedster named Jerry Sandberg. That said, the second play I ever witnessed as a member of the NIU football team was yours truly kicking the extra point through the goal posts. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to be nervous.
The Touchdown Scoring Machine
That first play was an omen. As it turned out, Fletcher was a very offensive minded coach and this team was effectively a touchdown scoring machine. That meant that I had boatloads of opportunity to score extra points. In fact, we scored so many touchdowns that we set school records for the most extra points in one season as well as the most extra points in a single game. This was not because I was any better than my predecessors. I just had so many more chances to kick extra points. I was even named player of the week after the single game record which included an action shot photo that was published in the Northern Star, the school newspaper.
A Full Athletic Scholarship
But despite all my good fortune, several weeks after the season was over, I was homesick and I had decided to tell Coach Fletcher that I was going back to Burlington Junior College second semester. As I walked into the stadium I just happened to run into the Coach. And before I could deliver my disappointing news, he informed me that he’d just placed me on FULL ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIP! It would pay everything for my college education starting second semester. I was speechless. Did I mention that I’d quit football my senior year in high school?
My Luck Fizzles
In my junior year NIU joined the Midwest Athletic Conference, a much higher level of football than we’d been used to the year before. Our touchdown scoring machine sputtered along with my own kicking production. Actually, I hardly remember that second (junior) season.
The summer before my senior year I spent way too much time water skiing on the Mississippi River which was located right alongside my home town. Late in the summer I took a spill and pulled my right groin muscle. Needless to say, that inhibited my kicking ability. My senior year was a complete flop. I didn’t play at all. My luck seemed to be running out.
And Then a Phone Call From the NFL
Then in the spring of that year (1969), out of the blue, I received a phone call from a gentleman who informed me that he was a scout with the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League. He said he’d heard that I was interested in an NFL tryout. I never really knew for sure, but this call must have been the result of Coach Sparling still pulling for me from back in the shadows.
Regardless, I hadn’t touched a football in months. And my senior season had been a complete and total failure. But I said yes, I’m interested in having an NFL tryout. When do you want to get together? He said he was in town as we spoke and he asked how soon I could get over to the stadium? I told him I’d be there in about 30 minutes.
The Wonderful Winds of DeKalb
I arrived at the stadium only to discover that there was a strong wind blowing from east to west. Sitting out in the middle of miles and miles of extremely flat cornfields, DeKalb was famous for being windy almost all the time. I put my square toed shoe on and proceeded to kick footballs… with the wind. I went from 30 yards to 40 yards to 50 yards, and more, hitting every kick like a well-oiled machine. I mean realistically all I had to do was kick the ball up in the air and with the help of this wind tunnel the football traveled long, straight, and directly through the goal posts time, after time, after time. Talk about being lucky! You can’t make this stuff up.
The Atlanta Falcons Contract
The scout charted every kick and a week or so later I received a piece of mail containing a standard player’s contract from the Atlanta Falcons signed by Coach Norm Van Brocklin, who at that point was already a member of the NFL Hall of Fame from his quarterbacking days with the Los Angles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
For whatever reason Coach Van Brocklin was unhappy with his current kicker, a gent named Bobby Etter from the University of Georgia and a doctoral student in mathematics at the University of Kentucky at the time. There were three kickers competing for the job. I lasted a couple of weeks before getting cut by Van Brocklin who was very kind when explaining my release. I knew Bobby Etter was the best kicker.
Fifty Some Years Later
To put a final capper in this improbable tale of good fortune, I recently (50 plus years after the fact) corresponded with a high school friend named Bob McLaury, who just happened to be the holder for me when we practiced kicking extra points my junior year in high school. Someone just happened to take a photo of Bob holding and me pretending (we were actually posing for the camera) to kick the football and published it in the school yearbook in the spring of 1964 – my junior year. That photo had to have been the source of Rick Lowery’s comments to Coach Sparling. Lowery was a year older than I, and he had no other way of knowing that I’d ever kicked a football for anyone.
In that conversation with McLaury, I asked if he remembered us ever kicking extra points or field goals in an actual game? I’m sure we’d practiced kicking. But I had no memory of ever kicking anything in a game. McLaury confirmed that he had no recollection of us doing anything of the kind. So most likely, one simple photo in a high school year book led to Rick Lowery telling Coach Sparling that I’d been a place-kicker in high school. This despite my probably never having kicked even one extra point in a real live high school football game. That conversation prompted Sparling’s letter and everything else that followed in its wake.
One Seemingly Inconsequential Conversation
It’s interesting to think how one seemingly inconsequential, off the cuff comment from a basketball player to his coach could change the direction of another person’s life so completely and totally. But for that little conversation I would most likely never have heard of Northern Illinois University, let alone had the opportunity to play college football, set school scoring records that lasted for over a decade, been granted a full athletic scholarship (ironically I was never really a good athlete), had any contact with the NFL, met my beautiful and talented future wife, had two ineffable kids of whom my wife and I are both so incredibly proud, etc.,etc., etc.
Yes, You Can Call Me Mr. Lucky!
And this football story is just one instance in which I have been so much more than just a little bit lucky throughout my life. It’s the most dramatic. But it’s a long way from the only story I could tell along this same line. There are many, many more but I won’t bore you with them at this point. Suffice it to say that I’ve never even once complained about being lucky. I’ve had much more than my share of good luck. You can indeed call me Mr. Lucky!
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